For more than 20 years, children have climbed onto Luke Durant Jr.'s lap at Mondawmin Mall and shared with him their Christmas wishes

Santa sees kids come and grow


Devin Trainor is petrified.

His mother pushes him forward. The 6-year-old clings to her. She gently pushes him again.

Devin stares up at the big - very big - man decked out in red with the bushy mustache and white, billowing beard. He takes a deep breath.

"This is my son Devin. He is 6 years old. He's a little scared," says Tina Trainor.

"Hi, Santa," Devin whispers, half smiling, half grimacing, as his mother plops him onto Santa's lap.

And as if he were on autopilot, Mondawmin Mall's Santa Claus (officially known as Luke Durant Jr. - but don't tell the kids) goes into Santa mode - large hugs and promises, questions about how many cookies he'll get and declarations of just how very much he loves every one of them.

"I love you, Devin," he says, swallowing the little boy in a big hug before Devin's off on his way. "This is going to be your best Christmas ever."

Here at Mondawmin Mall, where Christmas music blares and the frenzy of last-minute shopping is in full swing, there is one constant - a round, soft, red-bedecked man looking alternately jolly and weary as he sits under a glittering tree, hollering back to all who call out to him.

For more than 20 years he's ho-ho-ho'd here, witnessing kids morph into teenagers and then into adults, returning with their own children.

He's seen and heard just about everything.

There are those who are skeptical and those who are scared (so scared they pee in their pants - and on his).

There are those who tug on his beard (it's real and so is the tummy) and those who bombard him with questions.

Mostly, there are Christmas wishes.

Funny ones, like the kids who want to be rich and famous or travel to the North Pole with him. And more somber wishes, like the kids who just want their parents back together again.

The usual request is, naturally, for toys. All kinds of toys. Teddy bears and toy cars, Barbie dolls and bicycles. Computers and Game Boys, Xboxes and Dora dolls.

No matter the request, Durant nods and listens intently. He asks if they've been good, done well in school, listened to their parents. He'll ask the younger ones if they know their ABCs (lauding them even when they miss a few). He'll request extra cookies and milk ("Can you step it up this year?" he asks one young boy) and then tells them that they'll get everything they want for Christmas.

"I feel so blessed to play this role," he says between visits.

But when it comes to the contents of his personal life, Santa is somewhat evasive.

Age? Don't ask.

"Santa never gives his age," he says coyly. "I'm 2,000 years old."


"I can't tell you! Too many ladies would try to get Santa Claus."

What Durant will tell you is he grew up in Turners Station and now lives in Northwest Baltimore. And when he's not Santa, he's running his Something Good Jr. candy store in Mondawmin Mall.

He says he's always Santa, with his normally long white beard, wire-rimmed spectacles and belly. "People take pictures of me all year round," he says.

He is also a hot commodity. Durant won't say who, but he confirms that he gets several malls trying to lure him away every year.

He declines. "This is my home," he says.

He rises as Dasia Smith, 8, calls his name.

"Santa," she says, scrambling over.

Durant picks her up. He points at the large Christmas tree behind him and then at the snow lightly falling outside of the window.

He sits down, as she comfortably sprawls on his lap.

Dasia, unlike some children, knows exactly what she wants for Christmas. A Bratz Rock Angel tour bus and five Kelly dolls. And she's not the least bit intimidated by Santa.

"Didn't I give you two last year?" Durant asks her.

"No," she answers, putting her hand over her mouth dramatically.

"Are you being good?" he asks her.

"Yes," she says brashly.

"Are you listening to Mommy and Daddy?"

"Mmmm ... sort of, kind of," she responds.

He tells her she'll get everything she dreams of and she's off with a mini-candy cane and whistle.

Dasia says she's met Santa before. She likes him and she's sure he liked the rainbow cookies she left out for him last year.

"He ate them all!" she exclaims.

Next, Zyar Butler, 4, and Elijah Butler, 7, come bounding over to Durant.

"How you doing, baby? I love you. I love you. You're so handsome," he says as Elijah settles on his lap.

"And you're so beautiful," he says, looking at Zyar.

Elijah pulls Durant's hat.

"You can't pull Santa's hat," he says.

"What do you want for Christmas?" he asks Zyar.

"A lollipop," she says.

"I want cars," interjects Elijah. "And some trucks."

"Anything else?"

"That's all, Santa," Elijah says, reassuring him.

"Can you say, `Ho ho ho?'" asks Elijah, touching Durant's glasses.

"You got reindeer?" interrupts Zyar. "Where are they?"

"They're on the roof," he answers.

"How do you get them there?" she asks.

"It's magic."

"Let me see you do it," she says.

"You'll see it soon," he says.

And that seems enough to satisfy them right now.

But every year there are those who Durant loses, those who become nonbelievers - a reality he can do nothing about.

"Talk to him, Santa, he doesn't believe in you anymore," screams Robin Boston, coming out of a store with her 7-year-old son, Jalen.

"Why don't you believe anymore?" Durant asks Jalen.

Jalen stands silently with a smug look on his face.

"He says he's seen you 1,000 different times," she says. "And last year his sister showed him where all the toys were."

And so there is one less child that will clamor onto Durant's lap, eyes glistening with excitement.

Still, there will always be a demand for Santa Claus.

"Merry Christmas," Durant hollers as a gaggle of girls in pink come running over to him, jumping up and down.

There will always be those who believe.

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